Grievously combining uninspired effects-epic tropes, failed-camp dialogue (“Silly songs and scented smoke will do little for you now!”), and leaden escapist instincts, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time flounders in its sixth-century desert setting like one of its fallen, bleeding warriors. Jake Gyllenhaal, buffed for an action-hero payday, is Dastan, a street urchin adopted by the Persian king; in young manhood, reluctantly joining his brother princes in conquering the hilltop fortress of Alamut, he becomes entangled with the vanquished city’s frosty Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) and her holy duty as caretaker of a magic dagger that turns back time and threatens global annihilation when improperly wielded. (The particulars of the sorcery are both arbitrary and detailed at ridiculous length; they make the temporal paradoxes that confronted Gyllenhaal in Donnie Darko seem as crisp as Physics 101.) On the run from whoever killed his royal stepfather by baking him in a microwave robe (hint: Uncle Ben Kingsley scowls through all his early scenes), Dastan and Tamina bicker their way witlessly across the dunes, stopping to infiltrate a funeral, slay a battalion of killer snakes by hitting rewind on the dagger, and enlist the support of a comic-relief entrepreneurial sheikh (Alfred Molina with gold teeth) and his knife-throwing African aide (magnetic Steve Toussaint, who alas fills the equivalent of a “black guy in a horror movie” role).
All of this video game-adapted, tent-pole potboiler’s absurdities could be managed and overcome in the right hands, none of which can be detected in Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s digital pulp; everything recalls earlier movies and there are no organic signs of life. That director Mike Newell once applied his skills to an emotion-driven film like Donnie Brasco seems unimaginable; did he fragment nearly every parkour-style leap and tumble into several momentum-killing shots of his own volition, or in deference to the ascendant Mixmaster style?
As for the leads, Arterton has the authoritative snappishness of a young Judi Dench, but she never catches fire with her co-star. Gyllenhaal, using a mediocre but passable Brit accent to fit with the rest of the cast, alternately tries to swagger like ’60s Sean Connery or mug like ’80s Bruce Willis, but mostly seems adrift, wearing his burnoose like a period straightjacket. And while his pumped-up arms are fully displayed, Disney and Newell scarcely give the beefcake any further inspection; this is not a mistake Cecil B. DeMille would have made. Prince of Persia is as dull as the grainy, brown-yellow patina that weakly tries to camouflage its actors’ ethnicity, as perfunctory as its CGI sandstorms and fireballs, and free from committing to its characters and their fates thanks to the gimmick of undoing deaths, and an entire narrative, with one swing of a blade.